We need a more humane, effective, and evidence based criminal justice system – Caroline Parker
Winston Churchill once commented that “the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country”.
Our former justice secretary Ken Clarke knew this and dedicated his time in office to the “rehabilitation revolution”, a collection of policies dedicated to improving rehabilitation services for offenders as well as diversion services for the mentally ill. The new justice secretary Chris Grayling has declared support for his predecessor’s programme and announced in parliament that improving rehabilitation and reducing reoffending will remain top priorities for the coalition. The MoJ is facing £2 billion of budget cuts. Could this time of austerity provide the political justification for a Conservative led continuation of progressive reform, towards a more humane, effective, and evidence based criminal justice system?
Public mood and policy put people behind bars
In England and Wales we imprison more of our population than any other Western European country. The last 20 years saw the prison population double, but this increase did not stem from a rise in crime. Since the 1940s, regardless of whether crime has risen, fallen or remained stable, the prison population has consistently expanded. Public mood and the policies of governments, rather than actual crime rates, determine imprisonment rates.
Between 2005 and 2009 in England and Wales, the expansion of the prison population was accompanied by a reduction in crime. Meanwhile, in New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, prison populations expanded while crimes rates went up. True to form, Finland decided to reduce its prison population at a time when crime was rising, having concluded that imprisonment rates had little impact on crime rates anyway and that the money was better spent elsewhere (link).
Penal policy in the last 20 years has arguably been driven by demagoguery rather than evidence. Spurred on by tabloids and impelled to appear “tough on crime”, politicians have pandered to a simplistic and irresponsible depiction of crime and criminality. Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour government created over 3,000 new criminal offences and enacted over 23 criminal justice acts. The last 20 years have been particularly bad for young people; the number of 10-14 year olds in custody has increased by 550 per cent since 1996 and 30 children have died in custody since 1990.
Who ends up in prison?
The men, women and young people that end up in prison are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Over 70 per cent of prisoners have two or more mental disorders. Over a third of female prisoners and nearly a half of male prisoners have attempted suicide some time in their life. Over half of women and over a quarter of men in prison have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. Finally, over 40 per cent of all prisoners report being dependent on drugs (link).
Prison doesn’t work
All of the evidence shows that prison is a poor tool for both rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. Most prisoners leave prison hindered by the same drug, drink or mental health problems with which they entered. It is unsurprising therefore that almost half reoffend within one year of being released. For those serving short sentences of less than 12 months, 59 per cent reoffend.
On release these people face further problems. Just one third will enter education, employment or training within a year. Recently released women are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than women in the general population, while recently released males under the age of 18 are 18 times more likely to commit suicide.
Are there better alternatives?
For those who commit serious and violent crime, prison could be the only viable option in order to achieve public safety. But many of those in prison pose no such threat to the public. Many are imprisoned for non violent offences, including theft and handling offences, false documentation and breaches of court orders. In 2011 55 per cent of custodial sentences were six months or less.
Overall the cost of the criminal justice system is 2.3 per cent of GDP, which is higher than any other EU country and higher than the US. Reoffending costs the economy over £10 billion annually, and the majority of this cost can be attributed to offenders that have served short sentences (pdf link).
Evidence shows that court ordered community sentences are 8 per cent more effective at reducing one year proven reoffending rates than short custodial sentences (pdf link). Furthermore, while the cost per prison place is around £40,000 for men and £55,000 per women, community sentences cost nearer to £10,000.
Non custodial sentences are not only more humane; they are more effective and they are cheaper.
In this time of austerity, we cannot afford to ignore the evidence. The British public and politicians need to recognise that, whatever one’s views are on punishment, locking up some of the most vulnerable people in society for non violent offences for short periods of time and at maximum expense to the taxpayer, does more harm than good.
Caroline Parker is a research intern at CentreForum, the liberal think tank.